What Would New Sanctions on Iran Accomplish?
The UN Security Council has been turned into an instrument for punishing weak states even when there is no threat to world peace. Internal problems within a weak state can bring down, and often have caused the ire of major powers. The Security Council has been quick to impose sanctions for whatever “crime” the weak state seems to have committed, but hardly ever for a true violation of peace. In the case of Somalia, the Security Council imposed a series of sanctions for piracy, using children in the militias, refusing to listen to the Security Council, having the “wrong” group of leaders, and harboring unseemly guests. None of these sanctions has ever produced the intended results, but the UN continues to pile on sanctions. Somalia is not the only Arab country to be so favored. Let’s not forget Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Syria, Palestine, and Sudan.
The sanctions on Iraq in the aftermath of the 1990 war, even after Iraq withdrew from Kuwait and renounced its alleged rights to Kuwait, were so devastating that UNICEF reported as early as 1993 that there had been a resurgence of vaccine-preventable diseases in Iraq, including polio, diphtheria, and measles. UNICEF followed in 1997 by announcing that 1.7 million people, nearly half were children below the age of five, have died because of the scarcity of food and medicines due to sanctions imposed on Iraq. In 1998, the World Health Organization reported that between 5,000 and 6,000 Iraqi children died annually because of those sanctions. Despite devastating the Iraqi economy, sanctions failed to bring down Saddam Hussein.
Brutal as economic sanctions may be are they nevertheless effective? The British government conducted two major studies. The first in 2000 by the House of Commons Select Committee on International Development and the second in 2006-2007, by the House of Lords Select Committee on Economic Affairs. The House of Lords study proceeded from the assumption that sanctions can be imposed to avoid war as well as to “pave the way to war.” It had applied sanctions against several other states including Liberia, Sierra Leone, Somalia, North Korea, and Iran. Iraq was one of four countries against whom they imposed “comprehensive sanctions” between 1990 and 2003. Comprehensive economic sanctions are those that seek to deny a target state all normal international trade, and service interactions except those exempted on humanitarian grounds. The other states were Rhodesia, South Africa, and Yugoslavia. The Lords Committee found that Iraq, after her defeat in 1991, was required to meet some very difficult conditions for a lifting of her sanctions. The Lords Committee concluded that Iraq complied with most of what was demanded of it, even though the conditions imposed for the lifting of sanctions were extremely demanding.
Compliance notwithstanding, the U.S. had another objective: regime change, either through a military coup or through invasion. The House of Lords report found that the “primary victim was Iraq’s civilian population, part of which suffered terrible hardship. Efforts to alleviate this through waivers for food and medical supplies, and by allowing Iraq to sell limited quantities of oil to finance the purchase of other such goods, were largely defeated by the Iraqi regime.” The Lords Committee concluded: “It is predictable that sanctions which inflict high economic costs on a country run by a ruthless government are likely to then result in severe suffering among the general population even if there are humanitarian exemptions and relief programs.”
Other than the Palestinians, Libya was the first of the Arab states to feel America’s economic wrath, as far back as 1981, when President Regan accused the tiny North African state of masterminding terrorist acts. The U.S. imposed a series of acts against Libya and Iran, culminating in the Iran and Libya Sanctions Act of 1996. Like in Iraq, sanctions on Libya proved ineffective, and the regime lasted for another thirty years.
The unlucky Palestinians are another story. Once the Palestinian National Authority was created, the United States used its aid to the PNA to force the PNA into greater concessions, thus further weakening the Palestinian bargaining position. The PNA, having been resource-deficient, was reliant on external donations for its very survival. Relatively small amounts of foreign aid went the Palestinian way. Even this small amount was often misspent and became part of the well-known corrupt regime that the Palestinian set up in still-occupied Palestine. U.S. assistance basically ceased as the second uprising began in 2000, and especially since Hamas won a majority in the Palestine National Assembly in 2006. It resumed mostly to the PNA after the secession of Gaza. U.S. weapons against the Palestinian people were many, and all generally effective. It is not surprising that sanctions and economic measures would succeed against people who are already under occupation. Claiming that Palestinian organizations were “terrorist” groups, the United States imposed sanctions on all Palestinian organizations that resisted Israeli occupation, regardless of charter or method. The argument went that use of force in resisting Israeli occupation was terrorism, always, and therefore armed resistance should be halted entirely, under the proffered theory that the weaker the Palestinians became, the sooner armed resistance would end and peace could be achieved. And yet, decades of American sanctions and Israeli repression did not end Palestinian resistance.
Under those auspices of depriving terrorists of their sources of revenue, the U.S. imposed sanctions on many, if not most, Palestinian charitable organizations lest these organizations use some of the funds they collected to assist the armed resistance. Organizations that were known as “Muslim” were targeted first and most eagerly, for being possibly sympathetic to or in some way connected to Hamas, Islamic Jihad, or some Islamist resistance group. Other words that attracted American officials included the words “Jihad” and “Martyrs,” in addition to “Palestinian.” In this, the U.S. was fully supported by the neo-colonial powers.
The so-called Palestine Papers reveal a deliberate British policy to weaken not only anti-PNA forces but also the PNA itself. The Papers show copies of British covert plans from 2003 and 2004 to “degrade” the capabilities of opponents to the Palestinian Authority, to disrupt their communications, intern their members, close their civil and charitable organizations, remove them from public bodies, and seize their assets. Hamas was especially targeted by the British government and the European Union: “The Islamic resistance in Palestine was to be neutralized, and psychologically defeated, by the massive display of Western force in Iraq, rather than brought into the political process. Britain and the U.S. expected that the chastened Palestinians would then make the necessary concessions to Israel. What was striking was the official’s conviction that such an outcome was inevitable,” Alastair Cooke writes.
The Trump administration recently re-imposed sanctions on Iran, hoping to constrain Iran’s nuclear development, which was the objective of a multi-national treaty abrogated unilaterally in May 2018 by the administration. These sanctions have other objectives such as depriving the Iranian regime of financial resources that the U.S. says go into recruiting and training child soldiers. The Executive Order signed on August 8, 2018 lists extensive financial restrictions on Iran’s economy, limits the country’s international trade, weakens the Iranian currency, and punishes the regime’s leaders.
American sanctions have not received support from the UN Security Council where China and Russia have veto power. Approval of other major European powers is not assured, neither is support from even regional powers, except Saudi Arabia and Israel, two states that have no financial dealings with Iran. To obtain a modicum of international support, the U.S. exempted eight countries, allowing them to import Iranian gas and oil. Insisting that these countries not paying in dollars will not result in much harm to Iran since Iran will accept payment in other currencies, setting in motion a trend that will be harmful to the dollar. Ineffective application of sanctions is assured first because China, Russia, and India will continue economic relations with Iran. Iran’s leader Ali Khamenei and President Putin have a common interest in defeating U.S. sanctions directed against each of them. Iran and the EU agreed to pay for Iranian oil in euros. Russia and Iran seemed to be developing a regime of bartering Iranian oil for Russian goods.
China remains Iran’s major trade partner, a relationship that seems to be almost immune to U.S. sanctions. China accounts for roughly 17% of Iranian imports and 25% of Iranian exports. Despite sanctions, China’s exports to Iran increased by 23% in 2017 (from $7.2 billion to $8.8 billion) while Iran’s exports to China increased by 40% (from $6.5 to $9.2 billion).
The Indian government has come under serious pressure from the U.S. to stop imports of Iranian oil, but it had to face the fact that Iran is the third largest supplier of oil to India, approximating twenty-seven million tons per year. In 2012, both countries agreed to a rial/rupee deal in which half of the costs of imported Iranian oil will be paid in rupees; a local account will be created that finances Iranian imports of Indian products.
Iraq and Turkey, Iran’s closest neighbors, will continue to trade with Iran. The Central Banks of Iran and Turkey signed agreements to use local currencies to finance trade, sidestepping both the dollar and the euro. Iraq considers Iran as a major trading partner accounting for about $6 billion dollars annually. Millions of Iraqis and Iranians engage daily in religious and medical tourism.
Beyond this, Iran’s ability to sidestep most sanctions, and her reliance on her own internal resources and self-dependence, remain. Despite what is sure to be serious damage to the Iranian economy, Iran will withstand the Trump sanctions, as it has since 1979, and will simply offer further proof that no regime can be removed from power through sanctions, so long as that regime enjoys a modicum of popular support. Cuba has demonstrated this truism for decades.